Heschel on the Need for the Unnecessary

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Abraham Joshua Heschel The Earth Is the Lord's
In 1949, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a book called The Earth Is the Lord’s on the culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe; i.e. on a culture that had then been all but wiped out. It was the first book he had published in America, having himself escaped there from Europe during the war.

In writing about the joy that was to be found in the culture of the Hasidim for pure ideas, for endless study and restudy of the Talmud, he says this:

Concepts acquired a dynamic quality, a color and meaning that, at first thought, seemed to have no connection with one another. The joy of discovery, the process of inventing original devices, of attaining new inventions and new insights, quickened and elated the heart. This was not realistic thinking; but great art likewise is not a reproduction of nature, nor is mathematics an imitation of something that actually exists.

Allowing that it might be easy to belittle such impractical and unworldly preoccupations, he goes on:

But what is nobler than the unpractical spirit? The soul is sustained by the regard for that which transcends all immediate purposes. The sense of the transcendent is the heart of culture, the very essence of humanity. A civilization that is devoted exclusively to the utilitarian is at bottom not different from barbarism. The world is sustained by unworldliness.

So it would seem that it is in fact the unnecessary that, finally, we need the most.

Heschel’s quotes stand for themselves, and perhaps one can see how they have enormous bearing on so much of what goes on in our lives.

But I can’t resist the temptation to relate it to one thing that has recently generated a flurry of news stories, and that is the scientist and writer Stephen Hawking’s recent blunt statement that he is an atheist.

The astrophysicist said that the creation of the world is a scientifically explainable phenomenon and not something that has to do with “God,” pointing out that his theories about the origin of the universe are not compatible with the idea that the world was created by a supreme being.

“Before we understood science, it was natural to believe that God created the universe, but now science offers a more convincing explanation,” Hawking said in a video posted by El Mundo.

Well, leaving aside whatever scientific holes there might be in his certainty (and just as Stephen Hawking claims not to believe in God, I claim not to believe that Stephen Hawking is God) I would suggest there is a philosophical vacuum at the heart of the belief that because a God appears to be unnecessary, therefore a God is not needed.

You could dismiss this as mere doubletalk, but to me it’s a real point. People need God, as a quick look around the world and at human history shows, notwithstanding the relatively few like Hawking who claim not to. People need the transcendent, and sometimes in their pursuit of it they wind up with perverse or dangerous views on it, but this doesn’t put an end to the pursuit. Why do people need God, or the transcendent? Why be hard-wired and driven so pointlessly to find that which does not exist?

Some passionate atheists would claim it is simply a flaw that that we need to eliminate in ourselves, or something that humans need to evolve beyond. But if we as humanity truly need to eliminate something so fundamental to our nature, then, well … God help us.

Heschel’s book The Earth Is the Lord’s is still in print, and is a quite short, beautifully intense, and utterly inspiring read.